The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle

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In the motto of his novel, Boyle quotes D. H. Lawrence, according to whom the true American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

In this novel, Boyle examines this hard, etc. American soul, but not on the level of some abstract national character, rather, on the level of individuals – as the three main characters of the novel are all embodiments of some primeval American-ness, in different ways.

Take for instance Sten Stenson, a man in his 70s: he’s a veteran of the Vietnam war, an accidental hero, and a Real Man – the kind of person who handles every frightening situation excellently; the kind of person who takes the wife out to dinner without ever stopping to ask where she’d like to go; the kind of person who emanates the fumes of tension and violence. Sten is, by the way, a model citizen, no-one could find a fault in his life, in his patriotism, or in anything else – but he seems constantly to be waiting for the moment when someone steps in his way, when someone gives him the slightest excuse to erupt violently. (There are more than one episodes in the story where Sten thinks the exact same thoughts – or when he puts these thoughts into practice.) And in my view, this is also a form of paranoia (I’ll deal with the other forms shortly): when you are constantly on the lookout to notice when anyone strays from the virtuous track so that you can immediately jump their throat – and, sure, quite rightly, since you are a model citizen after all.

The other main character is Sten’s son, Adam. Adam has an unclarified mental illness and occasional psychotic episodes, he’s a substance abuser, and as far from being a model citizen as you can get. Adam lives his life fully instinctively, only caring to satisfy his basic needs (food, sleep, sex, moving around), and he harbors his own special brands of paranoia and delusion. Adam’s mind is governed by two overriding themes: one is that in his mind, he’s the present-day embodiment of the relentless, freely roaming, superhuman Wild West legend, John Colter; and the other is that the threat of an alien/Chinese attack is ever-present, therefore utmost vigilance is required. Sure enough, Adam defends himself – first passively, by building a safe hideout, then another one, and later moving on to attacking first before the supposed alien attack ever comes.

And then here’s Adam’s lover, Sara: an anarchist, a rebel, constantly fighting against the authorities with or without reason while quoting those passages of the Constitution that support her claims and ideas. Sara, just like Adam, sees an enemy in everyone, and she lives her life somewhere above/on the sides of the law – but contrary to Adam, she still lives more or less in reality.

The story (which I don’t go into) is told through the perspectives of these three characters, and all three perspectives are convincingly rendered – surprisingly enough, all in the third person. Boyle’s descriptive power and his ability to present the reality through his characters’ eyes is so strong that sometimes I had to double-check whether the third-person narrative is really third-person after all, I was so directly experiencing the world through the characters’ minds. While reading the chapters alternating among three points of view, I don’t only believe but also feel Sten’s hardly controlled aggression, Sara’s frustrated, passive-aggressive, “don’t you ever mess with me” attitude, and the way Adam gets immersed deeper and deeper into the wild, free, heroic (mythical) American reality of 200 years ago, while losing touch with the present-day reality.

And by the way: besides the deeply convincing reality perception of the characters, the best and most surprising trait of this novel is how anachronistic these old American values seem today.

I was always taken slightly aback when someone in the story broke her cell phone, or when two friends watched some movie on Netflix – because in the normal course of the novel, I felt as if this was a story set in the 19th century. This only goes to show how old codes and norms the main characters follow – and they follow and uphold these norms so relentlessly that I often forgot that this is a story that takes place in our days.

And while I’d refrain from drawing general conclusions, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I got the impression that the supposedly ancient American traits (Liberty! Individualism! Everyone for himself! Self-reliance! Never giving up!), so dearly valued by the main characters, perhaps don’t necessarily lead to anything good in themselves, without being combined with more cooperative values – especially in an age where it’s not the Wild West out there anymore, and where you don’t actually have to run for your life naked, with a bunch of Indians hot on your trail. (This happened to the real John Colter, not to the characters of this novel. At least not literally.)

And though it doesn’t strictly belong here, the way Adam’s life turns out illustrates this point – like I said, the history of Adam’s illness and his psychotic episodes are not detailed, but I still got the impression that Sten abandoned his son to his fate rather nonchalantly, saying in so many words that “Adam is a free and self-standing person, and his illness is not my business.” And that’s only a touch of (heartbreaking) dramatic irony when Sten finally realizes: Adam’s illness is his, Sten’s business, too.

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High Society by Ben Elton

highsocietySome time ago, mostly during my university years I read several novels by Ben Elton, so I presume I must have liked his books quite a bit, otherwise I wouldn’t have read so many of them. Anyway, a couple of years passed since then, and now I mostly remember that a Ben Elton novel is an excellent choice when you’re waiting for an exam to start; or when your brain is muddled for some reason and you find it difficult to think clearly; or in any situation when it’s impossible to really pay attention to a book but you must pass the time somehow. By the way, I always suspected that Elton’s novels are disposable, but I wanted to find out for sure if this is really the case, and I had some time on my hands when I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to a „proper” book anyway, so I went ahead and re-read one of his novels. I chose High Society because I had some vague recollections that I used to consider it as one of Elton’s better efforts.

As it turned out, I was right – Ben Elton is indeed rather amusing in his own frightfully pedantic, spoon-feeding way, and he can weave a plot with wonderful ease (so this is a book I would normally read in one sitting because it’s virtually unputdownable), but the novel is absolutely transparent, with no depths or intricacies, and a second reading offers exactly the same results as the first. (In a way this is okay – I could at least pass some time with the book again.)

So, getting down to High Society then. The protagonist is an unknown backbencher who comes up with the radical idea that all drugs should immediately be legalized in England because everyone is doing drugs anyway, and if people could get them legally, crime rates would drop by 90% and also, the state would get a lot of tax money. The main plot-line follows the actions and fights of this backbencher who wants to get support for his bill, and with a lot of work, he slowly manages to make the bill popular – but this is not how the story ends.

Besides a whole lot of parliamentary debates and political manoeuvres, there’s a bunch of (awfully instructive and tale-like) other plot-lines where we get acquainted with several characters whose life was ruined by drugs one way or another. For instance, there’s the English chick who tries to smuggle some drugs from Thailand to England for the first time in her life, and gets caught. Then there’s the popular rock singer who destroys his health and career in about two years because he consumes an unbelievable amount of drugs. And then there’s another young girl who runs away from home and ends up being a crack whore within just a couple of days.

I try not to be unnecessarily ironic. Of course my heart’s not made of stone, and I’m aware that dreadful things can happen to human beings because of drug-taking and because of the crime and violence associated with it – but I can’t stand Elton’s brand of preaching and spoon-feeding style without irony. Because Elton’s characters are not really characters, and his stories are not really stories – in his novels, the characters and stories are just illustrations Elton uses in order to make me understand what he thinks is wrong with today’s drug politics and how he would like to change the drug-related legislation in England. (I’m not mixing up Elton and his protagonist – it’s only that I always feel when I read one of his books that his novels are never really about the beliefs of the characters but about the beliefs of Elton himself, which he – for some unknown reason – moulds into the shape of a novel.)

And naturally, I understand what Elton says, but I’m not exactly satisfied because I prefer reading about „real” characters in a novel, and not about puppets whose only function is to illustrate some point the author wishes to make. Anyway, I suspect that I get much more easily irritated by didactic-preaching literature nowadays, so considering my current taste in books (which is, of course, subject to change) I would say that Elton’s novels are not only disposable – they can be skipped right away. I’m pretty sure this is what I’m going to do in the future.

Arkansas by David Leavitt

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According to the blurb of the Hungarian edition, this book belongs to the genre of gay fiction but it also says that you could easily leave the „gay” out of its description. And this is certainly true – this book is indeed fiction, and it doesn’t matter that the stories are mostly about gay people. (Someone raised the question in a short discussion about Arkansas: if you could safely omit „gay” from the genre description, why say it at all? Good question, indeed.)

Anyway, getting down to Arkansas. The book contains three rather long short stories (or short novellas, perhaps). Each story is very different from the other two, so it’s easier and more meaningful to deal with them separately. The first one, The Term Paper Artist is about a writer who’s currently not writing at all. He moves back (temporarily) to his family to Los Angeles so that he can spend his time free from all worldly difficulties while pretending to work. He spends his days in the library, supposedly doing research for his next book, and in a specialized bookshop, flicking through porn magazines. He’s lazy as hell, but he’s well-educated and he really can write well, so when a college student approaches him and asks him to write a term-paper for him in return for sexual favors, the writer agrees to the offer. And after the first occasion, several more would-be clients approach him with the same request.

I found it a bit surprising, but this story is actually very funny. Even though the world in which it is set reminds me heavily of the Los Angeles of Bret Easton Ellis’ early fiction, and the characters also resemble the protagonists of Ellis’ books in the sense that they have absolutely no moral concerns about anything (they trade freely in sexual services; they smoke weed just as naturally as other people would smoke regular cigarettes; and so on), this story isn’t nearly as depressing and unsettling as a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The reason for this may be that Leavitt’s characters are not nihilistic or disillusioned (on the contrary: they even seem to have some aims in their lives) and this gives a nice, light-hearted touch to the story.

The second novella, The Wooden Anniversary is very different from the first one: it’s not like a sunnier Ellis story – it’s more like a TV sit-com. It tells the story of two old friends (a straight woman and a gay man) visiting their mutual friend in Italy, where she teaches cooking, together with a charismatic Italian man, while her alienated husband spends most of his time in Rome. The company spends the visit reminiscing about the past, cooking, drinking and going on day-trips – and of course, all kinds of complicated feelings and desires arise among them, and there are a lot of head games going on in the background. There are a couple of bizarre and very dark details in the story (e.g., one of the characters has a frightful, hallucination-like experience in a park in Florence which he visits with the intention of picking up someone for a couple of hours), but on the whole this is also a relatively light story, and all the emotional fussing around is more comic than tragic or even dramatic. (Of course, it’s painful for the characters, but this story isn’t written in a way that it would be painful for the reader, too.)

The last story, Saturn Street is again very different. It’s about a young man who has a voluntary job at a food delivery service, and delivers meals to HIV positive patients. He strikes up a friendship with one of his clients, sometimes sharing a meal or watching a video with him. He feels a tender desire for his dying client, while simultaneously he tries to get over the recent death of his long-term partner. Saturn Street is a very sad and very gentle story; it’s full of longing, nostalgia, pain and disenchantment, and it has a touching, dream-like quality – it’s certainly a memorable read for me.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

imperialThis novel was heavily advertised here before it came out in Hungarian at the end of 2010, and it was just as extensively reviewed immediately after it was published, so I didn’t wait long before getting down to reading it (at the beginning of 2011), especially since I’m in a circa 12-year-old love-hate relationship with Bret Easton Ellis, and I’m interested in everything he does. As this is a sequel to Less Than Zero, set 25 years later, I re-read Less Than Zero before reading Imperial Bedrooms, even though I usually like to rest at least a couple of months between two Ellis novels.

As I said, 25 years has passed, but the world and the characters Ellis writes about haven’t changed much. Sometimes there are passing references to screwed-up plastic surgeries or messed-up marriages which indicate that the characters are not 18 anymore, but if it hadn’t been made obvious at the beginning of the novel in a rather forced-postmodernist way that the characters are now in their 40s, then I wouldn’t have been able to guess their age based on their behavior. The protagonists of Less Than Zero failed to grow up in the intervening 25 years, they didn’t manage to create meaningful lives, and they continue living obsessed with sex, partying and booze – so based on their habits and their maturity (or lack thereof) I would probably have guessed they are pampered rich 25-year-olds.

I assume Ellis must have known that you cannot expect too much from characters such as the ones he wrote about in Less Than Zero, therefore I find the alleged idea behind this novel – to wit: Ellis wanted to show what became of his characters in 25 years’ time – a bit ludicrous and pointless. Of course it soon transpires that nothing became of his earlier characters – and Ellis must have known this, too. And since his heroes, their morals and Los Angeles all remained the same, Ellis could have published the same novel again, had he been really planning to show what became of his characters – with the only notable exception that he should have replaced his references to Walkman music players with references to iPhones. I guess his avid readers (and please note: I’m one of them) would have been curious to read even such a less-than-original remake, but Ellis hadn’t stopped here, oh no – he had actually come up with a story, and I consider this quite a mistake.

Less Than Zero consists of loose-knit episodes, aimless conversations and empty daydreams – in fact, it has virtually no plot or story at all. But with this lack of real story and with its episodic quality, that book manages to portray the era of the 1980s and the and the era’s „typical” characters in a frightfully clear fashion. Imperial Bedrooms, on the other hand, does have a story, the characters have goals and make plans, and it seems that the events will actually lead up to something. Of course, all this is not really true: the story is deliberately tricky (up to the point that I find it almost impossible to follow), but it’s absolutely uninteresting, often ridiculous and sometimes it even resembles the cheapest day-time soaps. The sentences are often jumbled, banal and baffling – which annoys me big-time. And since Ellis’ characters are anything but self-sufficient adults, and they can be more or less freely interchanged (and confused) with one another, I have no interest whatsoever in who is actually playing his games with the others. I have no reason to like Julian better than Rip because they are basically the same, and therefore I’m not interested in their – supposedly – separate and unique stories.

In Less Than Zero, I don’t mind that the characters have no personality: that novel is about an era and a generation, and not about individuals. But Imperial Bedrooms seems to be a crime story of sorts and I got a feeling that you need individual characters to be able to enjoy a crime novel: it doesn’t matter, it cannot matter to me who dies, who does the detective work, and who chases whom if everybody is the same.

On the whole, Imperial Bedrooms was a huge disappointment for me. The references to Less Than Zero in the first couple of pages are entertaining and exciting, and the last couple of pages show something of the barren world of Less Than Zero, and depict the changes Clay underwent in 25 years quite well. But all the pages in between – they’re just plain boring and labored to me.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

It was some ten years ago, when the movie version of American Psycho was released in Hungary, that I first came across Bret Easton Ellis’s name. I didn’t watch the movie then (and even though ten years passed, I still haven’t seen it yet), but I was intrigued by what I read about it, and I wanted to know what that infamous novel on which the movie was based could be about. As it happened, I was unable to obtain a copy of the novel at that time. Either my local library didn’t carry a copy of American Psycho, or they banished it to some damp storeroom in the cellar in an attempt to save their readers from such a reading experience. Anyway, I was forced to be content with what I could get, so Less Than Zero became the first novel I read by Ellis, and actually it didn’t make an indelible impression on my young mind. I didn’t like Ellis’s style, and all I could grasp in the novel was that it was about a bunch of stupid little rich kids who spend their days doing drugs and whining away for a reason completely unfathomable for me.

But I grew older, gradually worked myself through all of Ellis’s books, and then even started to reread his novels. It was during my second reading of Less Than Zero that I realized that it is in fact a very good novel. And now I reread the novel for the third time and again, I came to the conclusion that it is indeed a good book, and what is more, it raises some highly interesting questions.  Of these in a minute.

But before that, let me say a couple of words about the story. It won’t take long: the novel doesn’t have a story as such. Less Than Zero deals with young Clay, a rich and bored university student and his friends. At the beginning of the novel Clay arrives home from a New Hampshire elite university to spend the Christmas holiday in Los Angeles. His four weeks at home are spent with uninterrupted partying, drug-taking and sex with various girls. While engaged in these activities, Clay sometimes experiences waves of nostalgia and starts pondering about the past – which was no more meaningful than the present, but still, looking back now, he feels that the summers he used to spend with his family in the desert were indeed good times.

It’s rather difficult to say anything about Ellis that hadn’t been said before. Many have praised his unique, minimalist style and the way he depicted the emptiness and meaninglessness that characterized the America of the 1980s and 1990s. And I agree with those who praise him: I also believe that he achieves all this in a clever and appalling way, and in the past couple of years I’ve learned to appreciate his style which I found boring ten years ago. But I don’t go any further into this topic, as I want to write about the violence of Ellis’s fictional world and the ways in which his characters struggle to find their way out from the hell they live in.

First of all, I was surprised to find how exceedingly violent Less Than Zero is, because I simply didn’t remember that this novel features so many brutal, shocking and inhumanly cruel scenes: we read about murders, about rapes, and about people forced into prostitution, and somehow I associated such things with Ellis’s later novels. Well, I was wrong, but this mistake made me think about the relations among Ellis’s first three novels (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho). For me, American Psycho is the novel of absolute hopelessness, whereas in the other two novels I feel that there is still a slight chance of living a life which doesn’t so closely resemble hell. For instance, it’s worth noting in Less Than Zero that Clay attempts to keep out the violence from his life: he doesn’t participate in the violent acts of his buddies, or simply leaves the room when his companions start to watch a snuff porn movie. Of course all these actions speak of passivity, and Clay doesn’t actually do anything to prevent the others from engaging in these kinds of activities, but still, in the fictional world of the novel, it seems an almost revolutionary act and the proof of his free will that Clay sometimes ventures as far as to think and occasionally even refuses to do what everyone else does.

Naturally, I don’t want to praise Clay too highly, as he lives the same empty, aimless, meaningless life as his companions (I wouldn’t go as far as to call them ’friends’) who like to entertain themselves with violence. But I find it interesting that Ellis makes him, the least aggressive character the protagonist of Less Than Zero, because even though Clay doesn’t have a clue as to how to change his life, at least he doesn’t try to redeem himself by torturing others, and this raises some hopes in me.

In The Rules of Attraction we can also read about the often less than innocent games of a couple of rich university students. The events in that novel are also totally random, and the characters are just as interchangeable as the characters in Less Than Zero. But neither Less Than Zero, nor The Rules of Attraction can prepare the reader for the insane violence, the emotional desolation and the immeasurably bleak and hopeless world view which appears in American Psycho.

I have no idea when the passive, helpless, aimless, but more or less harmless Clay and his likes gave way to the murderously insane Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s fictional world. And here I don’t want to go into the possible satirical interpretation of American Psycho, and don’t want to deal with the idea that perhaps Pat Bateman only imagined what he did, as this doesn’t alter the fact that there must have been a point where the dark world of the first two novels suddenly turned even darker, and violence took hold over the sanity of the characters. I’d like to pinpoint when this change occurred, but I’m not sure if it’s possible at all.

The novels by Bret Easton Ellis can provoke many different thoughts and emotions. In me, they provoke sadness above everything else. Ellis is not a moralizer, but I am, so I write down shamelessly that my heart breaks every time I read about his inhuman, emotionless, unhappy characters who despite all their culture and money don’t know how to make their hellish lives better – the hellish lives, let me add, which they created for themselves.

(And I keep rereading his novels, despite all this.)

Complicity by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is a great moralizer. All his books I’ve read so far (mostly science fiction novels, apart from The Wasp Factory) were full of „big” moral issues so I wasn’t surprised to find that Complicity is also a heavily moralizing fable. (The post contains spoilers.)

In this novel the characters contemplate the way modern capitalist societies work, and they try to decide whether one is allowed to punish those money and power-grabbing, immoral businessmen, politicians, doctors and public figures who ignore common people and feel free to walk through everyone in order to attain their goals.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Cameron Colley, a gonzo journalist, who keeps referring to and comparing himself to his hero, Hunter S. Thompson – but in fact he only resembles Thompson in the sense that he is destroying his mind and body with all the addictive substances available to him (drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, computer games) with a Thompson-like dedication and enthusiasm. Otherwise he’s far from being a really Hunter-like mad-gonzo figure – perhaps because basically he’s a typical screwed-up liberal arts-sucker: an idealist pretending to be a cynic, who honestly believes that, for instance, he can make the world a better place by writing investigative articles for a newspaper. (By the way, I deeply appreciate and respect this way of thinking.)

At the beginning of the story, Cameron is working on a big issue: a mysterious informer keeps calling him up and tells him some details about the circumstances of a couple of strange murders which happened some years ago and which might have been interconnected. Cameron is trying to get ahead with this case, but in the meantime, there’s another murder series in the present tense of the story as well: some rich and powerful public figures are murdered, and after a while Cameron becomes the prime suspect since he happened to write a disparaging article about these figures some time earlier, and his alibi for the time of the murders is rather shaky.

I guess it’s not a big surprise that the murderer is not Cameron but a self-appointed avenger who hates capitalist society just as much as Cameron does, however, as opposed to the journalist, he doesn’t only hate it in theory but is willing to perform some harsh measures to make the world a better place – as he imagines it.

Of course the novel isn’t only the critique of capitalism but a lot of other things as well – or rather, I should say, it contains many other things besides heavy moralizing: for instance, there are a couple of relatively detailed, lightly sadomasochistic sex scenes; there are a lot of reminiscences about the past and childhood traumas which shaped the narrator’s adult life; and there are intriguing, almost spiritual meditations on the nature of (cigarette, drug, computer game, whatever) addiction which really do remind me a bit of Hunter S. Thompson.

Only – and this is not surprising in a book by Iain Banks – the novel is a bit crowded. It contains a lot of plot lines, which is not a problem in itself, but none of the plot lines is elaborated sufficiently, so the result is a novel which is not a crime story, not a „proper” criticism of modern society, not a soul-searching, past-processing drama, and not a mad-gonzo work of fiction in the style of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a little bit of all these, a book which contains innumerable great touches, details and ideas, but isn’t so great or very interesting as a whole.

Closer by Dennis Cooper

This novel is less than 130 pages long in my edition, so I supposed I would read it in half an evening. But even though I was prepared for the unflinching brutality of the book, I couldn’t bear to read more than two chapters in a single sitting, so it took me days to get to the end.

The story is set in an average American city, and the characters are high-school students, their acquaintances and their teachers. Most of them are gay drug-users, and almost every one of them suffers from some psychological or psychiatric disease or aberration. Each chapter focuses on a different person, and the minor characters often make guest appearances in one another’s chapter. The protagonist is George Miles, an extraordinarily attractive teenager who spends his days in an emotionless, drug-induced haze and lets everyone use and abuse him in the way they please. Some people employ him as a model; some only dream about him; someone wants to cast him as the main actor in a porn movie; some people want to have sex with him; and someone goes as far as to nearly kill him. And George accepts all these atrocities without complaint.

The reason for George’s passivity and his abandonment of himself isn’t entirely clear to me. However, it is clear enough that in fact George is not an emotionless zombie – in fact, he is brimming with emotions which he pours into his journal since there they don’t trouble anyone. It is also evident that George would like to put a stop to this terrible situation that everyone can treat him like an object, but he is unable to assert himself. Of course George is a „typical” clueless teenager, but I have no idea when and how his life went astray and it doesn’t seem that he will ever be able to find his way in life again – which is unbearably sad.

However, it’s not only the hopelessness of George’s fate that saddens me – the fate of virtually all characters makes me sad. Everyone in this novel is the victim of their desires, dreams or illnesses, and even if they use and abuse George as they will, all they can ever get is a moment’s relief from their sufferings.

The title of the novel is worth mentioning. „Closer” in this book almost always refers to bodily closeness. The characters are constantly amazed by each other’s beauty and skin, they would like to get closer to the other person’s beauty, and their way of getting closer is either by entering the other person’s body (by having sex with him or wounding him) or by devouring those things the other’s body emits. This kind of closeness and intimacy is, however, incidental and can end in any minute. The novel illustrates this point a good many times. For instance, after George’s super-sexy bottom is brutally insulted, suddenly no-one wants to have sex with him (i.e. no-one wants to get closer to him), instead, all just pity him or turn away from him in disgust. Or I can also mention one of the minor characters, Alex, whose lower body is paralyzed in a car accident, so when his friend has sex with him he doesn’t feel a thing – that is, he doesn’t experience closeness.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t claim that the characters of the novel lack the need for emotional or spiritual intimacy and closeness: from time to time we can witness some feeble attempts of someone trying to get really close to someone else. For instance, at one point George’s father wants to go somewhere with his son, just to spend some time together – however, his suggestion is harshly turned down. And of course all the other connection attempts in the novel are unsuccessful, too. It’s only the skin and the flesh the characters can really see, it’s all they can connect to, and they are unable to handle anything more spiritual than the body itself – but I tend to think they would like to be able to do this. And I also think that they know all too well that what they call closeness is far from being the real closeness, and they also know that all they get during their intercourses is the skin, while the real person is somewhere else – but all this knowledge doesn’t help them to change and to be able to get truly intimate with another person. And this fact makes Closer a stunning and immensely sorrowful novel.

(The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis is a somewhat similar novel, only it’s much „lighter” than Closer.)

How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland

I was wandering around aimlessly in one of my favorite bookstores when I came across this novel. I had never heard about it before, but I loved its title and cover from the very first moment. I checked what the novel was about and read the selections from the favorable reviews on the back cover. Of course, according to these quotes, every single novel is masterful, exciting, heartbreaking, unsettling, beautifully written, irresistible, breathtaking or any arbitrary combination of these, and sometimes I’m still naive enough to believe what is written on the cover. However, I didn’t buy the book on the spot, but decided to keep it in my mind and buy it later. But then I kept thinking about it continuously, so a couple of days later I went back to the shop and bought it.

It’s always a great pleasure for me to read a book I know absolutely nothing about, and which hasn’t been read by any of my friends or acquaintances either. I always feel that these books aren’t yet „spoiled” by any previous opinions and prejudices, neither my own, nor those of others – so they still carry the inherent possibility to become one of those books that change my life. No wonder then that I started to read How the Light Gets In with great curiosity and excitement, and as it happened, I only needed to get as far as the second page to know for sure that this was indeed a book I was going to love – and one that I’m bound to re-read a hundred times later.

You may guess from the previous paragraphs that this isn’t going to be one of my most objective and analytical posts. However, I don’t want to fill this post only with my incoherent ramblings, so let me first tell you what this novel is about.

(By the way, I’m not sure about the origins of the title, but I searched the web and found that Leonard Cohen’s song „Anthem” contains the following lines: „There is a crack in everything // That’s how the light gets is”. It may just be possible that Hyland refers to this song in the title.)

How the Light Gets In tells the story of sixteen-year-old Lou, a girl with an exceptionally high IQ from Sydney, Australia. She lives with a family of misfits who mainly live on the dole. Naturally, Lou wants out, so when she gets a chance to spend a year in the US as an exchange student, she grabs the opportunity immediately. She considers this year as her big (or only) chance to change her life and herself as well. Arriving in the US, she is greeted by her host family, the lovely, healthy and well-off Hardings who try to make sure that the unlovely, uncouth, sulky, insomniac Lou finds her place in their Perfect American Life as soon as possible.

Of course this is not too easy for a girl like Lou, and she gets entangled in every kind of difficulty imaginable in a life of a sixteen-year-old girl: she smokes, drinks, does drugs, goes out with the wrong guys, doesn’t go home in time, steals and lies – and after a while it seems obvious that her dreams about a new life may never come true.

Have I read a lot of books about such things? Of course I have. What is so good about this novel then? Simply everything. For me How the Light Gets In is virtually perfect in terms of themes, quality of writing and style. The novel deals with such diverse topics as, for instance, the unattainability of the American Dream; the impossibility (or extreme difficulty) of fitting in; the identity crisis of teenagers; and teenage loves, desires and sexual relations – and miraculously, Hyland manages to fit all these topics into her novel, without making it overburdened or didactic.

And Lou tells her story in exactly that clever, sarcastic, hostile style which can be expected from a sixteen-year-old, intelligent, naive, unhappy, insecure girl. In the whole novel I only felt once, during one of Lou’s ruminations about alcoholism, that the words don’t sound authentic from the mouth of a teenage girl, and for a second I was afraid that the novel might suddenly turn into a didactic self-help book, but to my immense relief, this didn’t happen.

One of reviews quoted in the book claims that Lou Connor is a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. I think that comparing this novel to The Catcher in the Rye is both inevitable and correct. As The Catcher in the Rye is such a classic, it only seems natural that it’s mentioned in connection with every new novel dealing with teenage angst. And in the case of How the Light Gets In the comparison indeed seems apt: Lou’s behavior, her desire to be loved, her critical view of the world, her penchant for hasty judgment and sometimes even her vocabulary reminded me of Holden. And apart from Lou herself, there are several episodes and motifs in the novel which seem to be references to Salinger’s novel. For instance, Lou’s relationship with the Russian exchange student Lishny bears strong reminiscences to the relations between Holden and Jane Gallagher in The Catcher in the Rye. (By the way, „Lishny” seemed such a strange name to me that I felt compelled to dig up its meaning. Actually, the word means „superfluous”, „futile”. But as Hyland herself doesn’t explain about the word in the novel, I don’t want to analyze the possible implications of this name either. )

I read it more than once that one should read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, as it’s impossible to grasp its atmosphere and meaning if you first read it as an adult. Actually, I was around 16 when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and re-read it many times since then, and it always proved a compelling, cathartic book for me. Still, I don’t know how I would have reacted to it if I had first read it as an adult. As I mentioned, How the Light Gets In indeed resembles The Catcher in the Rye in many respects, just as Lou resembles Holden. If we examine Lou’s character more closely, she is nothing more than a not too amiable, whining teenager who would like to change the world and herself in it – but we may surmise that she will soon grow up, learn how things really are, and be forced to conform to the norms of society.

So I might as well feel that Lou is only a pretty irritating teenager, and I have nothing to do with her, as I’m way past her age and her petty problems. But as it happens, I can very much feel for Lou, I can understand her struggles, and my heart nearly breaks whenever I see how she steps one step closer to ruining her life completely.

There are two possibilities here. It might be that deep down I’m still a teenager, this is why I can understand Lou’s story so much. Or it might be that this an excellent novel about a sixteen-year-old which is not only meant to be read by other sixteen-year-olds. And I believe this second possibility is the case here.